Designing Accessible Student Accommodation

Jeremy Mears
Our recent experience on a refurbishment project at the University of Exeter highlighted how important it is to look beyond the current published guidelines when designing accessible student accommodation.

When it comes to designing accessible student accommodation, within the construction industry we follow a whole host of guidelines such as those set out within the Approved Documents (particularly Approved Document M Volumes 1 and 2). Most construction professionals will have a general knowledge of the British Standards (BS8300) and best practice design guidance. However, the recent successful delivery of a refurbishment and adaptation project at the University of Exeter highlighted that following these documents only provides us with part of the full picture. We need to look further to ensure we really are designing accessible student accommodation. The project was complex and multi-faceted but it also highlighted a whole host of wider accessibility considerations faced by designers every day.

A fundamental aspect of this project was to meet with the students using the facilities in an attempt to try and understand the daily challenges they face. They were supported by their families and occupational therapists which helped to provide a broader understanding of what the works needed to deliver.

As an accredited Consultant member of the National Register of Access Consultants for over 10 years I have an understanding of the requirements that go beyond general guidelines and where the project allows it, I have always tried to incorporate equality of accessibility into projects irrespective of disability. However, I have also learnt over twenty years as a construction professional that everyone is an individual and everyone is different regardless of disability or other protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.

A fundamental aspect of this project was to meet with the students using the facilities in an attempt to try and understand the daily challenges they face. 

Listening to the students and visiting their home environments gave me a far greater understanding of their needs and ensured that we were able to design a solution which was far more usable and accessible than generic accessible facilities as recommended by published guidance.

It quickly became apparent that each student had different needs and as such each room had to be designed and setup to suit their requirements. Differing wheelchairs designs alone meant adjustable washbasins and mirrors needed to be fixed at different heights to ensure that each student could access them.

On this particular project I worked with two students who needed 24 hour support, but also wanted to experience the freedom and autonomy of attending university. In addition to designing their residences to having adjoining carer and support facilities, the actual student spaces were designed with integrated automation of lighting, curtains, window opening etc. This has allowed the students to reduce their reliance on support from others and have more personal freedom and space within their accommodation.

Challenges remain in the misunderstanding or misinterpretation of accessibility from both clients and consultants alike.

As construction professionals we are often faced with a specific standalone project task which is isolated from the wider built environment or context of the site location. On this particular project, context was crucial to factor in the broader considerations of access from accessible accommodation to teaching and social facilities elsewhere on campus.

Challenges remain in the misunderstanding or misinterpretation of accessibility from both clients and consultants alike. Most are looking for a quick fix or a benchmark level of response. Despite the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in 1995, its amendment in 2005 and its being consumed into the Equality Act in 2010, I am still regularly faced with comments surrounding 'DDA Compliance’ and ‘DDA Standards.’ Neither term ever existed or was ever achievable and yet these still seem to be the benchmark in many people’s eyes for meeting a suitable standard.

We need to be thinking far more broadly about the people that will benefit or be discriminated against by the design decisions we make and as an industry...

We need to be thinking far more broadly about the people that will benefit or be discriminated against by the design decisions we make and as an industry we need to think about how we can make the built environment a far more inclusive place, irrespective of disability or any of the other protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. A good reference source to highlight topical issues is the BBC Ouch Blog. This covers a wide range of disability and health issues and helps to highlight the challenges faced daily by disabled people. It also offers an insight into the challenges we need to tackle as construction professionals to create an inclusive built environment around us.

Dr Kirsty Liddiard, a disability researcher at the University of Sheffield, says "Disabled students face a panoply of barriers within UK Higher Education (HE). Research shows that this is often most acute within the "social side" of university – of which good quality, integrated, accessible housing and inclusion into the same spaces and places as their non-disabled peers are a key part. Historically, and far too often, those who create space and place seldom listen to disabled people assert their own needs, or we see institutional and financial pressures get in the way of meaningful and rightful access. As suggested in this article, creating accessible spaces that make a real difference to people’s lives means thinking more about and working alongside the end user – in this case, disabled students. Working in such ways offers the potential for disabled students to thrive, rather than merely survive, HE and proffers access to the same experiences as anyone else."

Jake Fisher, University of Exeter Estates team said "We appointed Faithful+Gould due to their knowledge and experience in enhanced accessible facilities. Jeremy provided the University with specialist knowledge to develop the design and he provided support and assistance throughout the project"